Essay on Reciprocating Engine Advances

Published: 2021/11/18
Number of words: 648

The first 50 years of the aviation industry were significantly influenced and driven by continuous technological developments of reciprocating piston engines. The significant period starts with the very first flight by Alberto Santos-Dumont without any ground assistance in the year 1906, and the era ended in 1956 with the maiden flight equipped with the most technologically advanced reciprocating piston engine, L-1649 Starliner developed by Lockheed Martin (Lockspeiser, 1953). The aircraft reciprocating piston engines have evolved from simple configuration to the mechanically complex system that includes compact opposed-piston engines, V-type engines, and high-performance multi-row radial engines. Therefore, piston engine technology is closely related to the history of aircraft performance. The innovation of the piston engine was continuous to achieve high speed and control, which was dependent on specific power and high altitudes; however, this was only achievable through supercharging. Therefore, the first 50 years of aviation history can be viewed as a piston revolution and development that helped speed up transportation (Sanbongi, 1999).

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History and advances of piston engines

The first V- engine with eight cylinders designed especially for airplanes was patented in 1902 by a French Engineer Léon Levavasseur. Theoretically, the weight carrying capacity of the engine was estimated up to 100 kg, whereas power output was 80 hp. However, this estimated output was not achieved by the actual design. An improved version of the V8 “Antoinette” engine was presented one year later by Levavasseur, which was able to produce 50 hp. Although, in 1904, Alberto Santos-Dumont used the initial design of the V8 engine that was able to produce 24 hp in the famous aircraft “14bis”. The flight was crashed due to insufficient power; however, it flew for seven meters. Later, Santos-Dumont replaced the initial V8 engine with an enhanced version of the V8 engine with power-producing 50 hp to fly an aircraft in 1905 (Sanbongi, 1999).

In the year 1911, European scientists developed pusher propellers that resemble tractor propellers that seem highly efficient. Several cylinders were tested by these scientists, such as 4, 8, and 12 cylinder engines and 3 and 5 cylinder rotary engines. However, these engines could power only two-blade propellers that could fly only 1100 miles distance and 13000 ft altitude with a continuous flying capacity of 28 hours (NASA, 2007). Igor Sikorsky developed the first four-engine aircraft in 1913 that could develop 600 hp and could carry 13 passengers. The development of the piston engines for aircraft accelerated in the first world war until 1918 and reached 140 mph speed and altitude of 20,000 ft.

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During the 1940 and 1950s second world war forced countries to developed reciprocating engines with high performance that could withstand more time in the air, with high speed and altitude. However, as the aircraft’s altitude grows, the air gets thinner that causes a loss in engine power. This led engineers to include forced induction methods such as turbochargers and superchargers into the reciprocating engines. Out of two, turbochargers proved to be more efficient than superchargers as turbochargers could increase horsepower by 200 hp. (Panko, 2015).


It was evident that power recovery from the reciprocating engine powered through turbocharger is lower than that of the turbine engine as the net output of the turbine engine was close to the power produced by the engine. This was the main reason behind the migration of the aircraft industry from the reciprocating piston engine to a turboprop or turbojet engine. However, the “Lockheed- Starliner” was equipped with a turbo-compound design, but unfortunately, the rapid triumph of the jet engine has outshone the “Starliner” (Lockspeiser, 1953).

Work cited

Lockspeiser, B. (1953). Fifty Years of Powered Flight. Nature, 172(4382), 742-746. doi: 10.1038/172742a0

NASA. (2007). Pushing the envelope: A NASA guide to engines. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 04(13), 1-11.

Panko, R. (2015). Pearl Harbor Superchargers and Turbochargers – Hawaii Museum. Retrieved from

Sanbongi, B. (1999). The Aircraft Engine: An Historical Perspective of Engine Development through World War I. Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education & Research, 8(3), 7-9.

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